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Muay Thai (Thai boxing) is the most popular contact sport in Thailand, and a pillar of Thai culture, so much so that for years the Thai government has been asking, unsuccessfully, for it to be included as an Olympic sport. The attraction of this demanding and dangerous form of fighting on canvas is still on the rise among sports enthusiasts. The moral dilemmas associated with it are also on the rise: in mid-November 2018, Anucha Tasakoko, a 13-year-old boy, died of a brain haemorrhage in the ring, in the suburbs of Bangkok.

Despite a law passed in 2003 by the Thai government prohibiting minors from being allowed to risk their health by practising the sport, every weekend hundreds of boys and girls fight professionally to packed stadiums. It is calculated that there are about 200,000 minors who practice Muay Thai in Thailand. On the canvas they are like any other boxer: they are paid and illegal bets on their victories and defeats are the order of the day.

Nine-year-old Nik Phochamrean

doing pull-ups next to his brothers in a gym in one of Bangkok’s working-class suburbs. The boys train two hours a day, six days a week. Thai Sai neighbourhood, Muang district, in the Samutsakhom province, Thailand. Photo: Guillem Sartorio

Every year, thousands of foreigners travel to Thailand to learn to master the “art of eight limbs” (two fists, two elbows, two knees and two feet). At a local level, professional boxers are treated as superstars, and amass huge fortunes. There are even university grants for students with a skill for fighting.  Many Thai children dream of becoming their idols one day.

Nik (right) and Noey Phochamrean (left), nine and seven years old respectively, do strength-building exercises with weights under the supervision of their trainers. It is calculated that about 200,000 minors practice Muay Thai in Thailand, many of them professionally. Thai Sai Samutsakhom neighbourhood, Thailand. Photo: Guillem Sartorio

“If a seven-year-old child is fighting under the same rules and with the same rewards as an adult who weighs 50 kilos more, it means we are failing as a society,” says paediatrician Adisak Plitponkarnpim, director of the Child Safety Promotion and Injury Prevention Research Centre (CSIP) at Ramathibodi Hospital in Bangkok.

Fifteen years ago, this doctor presented the Thai government with a study on the injuries suffered by boxers. “If we have already proved brain damage in adult boxers, what will be the repercussions for a seven-year-old boy by the time he is 12, and still in full growth?” Adisak asked. However, the Thai government ignored the report and rejected any changes in legislation because it did not show negative effects on the health of fighting children.

Lindsey Ferrante

Lindsey Ferrante

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